There's a dividing line between beer-drinkers: those who have tried Pliny the Younger, and those who have not. The triple IPA made by Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa is the stuff of legend, a serious brew with 10.5 percent alcohol content that's only available in very limited quantities during the first few weeks of February. People talk about Pliny the Younger in hushed, reverential tones; they only share their sources of it with people they trust. Because kegs of the stuff usually go within an hour or two, finding and consuming Pliny the Younger takes both dedication and elbow grease.
See also: SF Beer Week: The Last Hurrah
First, you have to locate a bar that's pouring it, not an easy task -- some announce their Pliny the Younger availability on the Beer Week event schedule, but many only through word of mouth (Twitter and beer nerd message boards help). Once you do find the lucky bar, be prepared to wait in line -- sometimes for hours.
Because of all this, you will also probably end up drinking Pliny the Younger at odd times like 11:30 in the morning, as we found ourselves doing yesterday. We were at Toronado, the Lower Haight beer bar that released a limited amount of the beer at opening every day this week. There was indeed a line when we arrived a few minutes before the doors opened, but it moved pretty quickly, and before too long we were inside and fighting our way to the bar.
As we waited for the bartender's attention, we checked out the crowd, wondering who else was able and willing to start drinking before noon. The median age was about 35; the male-to-female ratio about 4:1. Almost everyone who had already gotten their beer was taking pictures of it and posting them on Twitter and Facebook. One older man in a worn leather jacket claimed a table, booted up his laptop, and loudly announced his intention to work. We fretted about the proximity of his two Pliny the Youngers to his keyboard, but he was clearly a Beer Week veteran, and it was every man for himself.
After about five minutes we'd finally worked our way up to the bar and ordered beers -- one of the small pours of Pliny the Younger, as well as a pint of Russian River's double IPA, Pliny the Elder, for comparison. Then we looked around for a place to sit. The bar was packed; the tables had long since been taken. But Pliny makes friends out of strangers, and the guy next to us at the bar offered a spot at his group's table in the back. We followed him gratefully and sat down.
It was time for the moment of truth. We all cheersed, then took the first sip. There's no doubt about it: Pliny the Younger is a beautiful beer. It's a clear, golden color, and tastes strongly of citrus and hops without blowing out your palate. It's also surprisingly light and refreshing, considering the amount of alcohol in it. Like a well-made wine, you can tell how much technical craftsmanship went into the making of it -- a large part of the reason only a limited quantity is made each year.
Next to the Younger, Pliny the Elder tasted overpoweringly hoppy and almost syrupy -- it's a fine beer we've enjoyed on other occasions, but next to its younger brother it seemed flabbier than usual.
We were rapidly becoming friends with our tablemates, who had all skipped work to come try the legendary beer for the first time. The atmosphere in the room was festive and holiday-like; after drinking rare beer with strangers before noon on a Thursday, it seemed like anything could happen, like none of the usual rules applied. At a certain point we went back to the bar and got more of the little glasses of the liquid gold to savor, because we were there and so was it, and we didn't know how long it would be before we met again.
Most of the way into our third glass we looked up and noticed that everyone around us was now drinking a darker beer. Pliny the Younger was gone. We finished our last precious sips and stumbled out of Toronado, blinking in the bright sunlight. It wasn't quite 1 p.m. We weren't exactly sure what had happened over the preceding hour, but it felt like something memorable and special. Then we said goodbye to our new friends and went home to take a nap.